Ode to my friend Jay for his 80th birthday

Jay Keenan is my friend. He also recently turned 80. People who aren’t also Friends of Jay™ sometimes think it’s odd I have a friend who is more than 30 years older than me. They assume he is “a father figure.” He is not. He is my friend. They may even think that there must be something improper going on when a professor is friends with many of his much younger, former students. I hate to disappoint your desire for hot gossip or outrage-inducing tales of older men and younger women, but it’s not like that. Jay is a friend. A true friend to me and many others.

Jay has friends of various ages because we are joined by common interests, most notably theatre and good food. It also helps that Jay is a generous host, a talented storyteller, and incredibly kind. None of these foundations of friendship are age-specific.

Don’t get me wrong though, Jay is old. (Sorry, Jay.) But he actually seemed much older when I met him. Of course, to an 18-year-old college freshman everyone over 22 seems old, particularly some professor who is bald with a white beard. This bias (along with him being a teacher) is why I wouldn’t have categorized Jay as a friend when I was in school. He was Dr. Keenan to me then.

The thing about Jay being bald with a white beard when I first met him is that him still being bald with a white beard makes him seem frozen in time. I’m sure he’d disagree about how much he has aged, but to me it is almost like he has stayed the same while the rest of us are getting older until we catch up to him. (When I first met Jay he was only about ten years older than I am now. Yeesh.)

Jay and I became friends the way that Jay has become friends many people: We did theatre together. Over the years Jay directed me in shows, and I directed (and choreographed) Jay. Mostly, however, we acted together. In The Dresser, I played an aspiring actress who desperately wanted to play Cordelia to Jay’s King Lear. Years later I did play Cordelia to Jay’s King Lear.  We did a lot of shows together.  Inherit the Wind, The Man Who Came to Dinner, American Dreams, Joseph’s Trouble About Mary, and more. It was always a pleasure to do shows with Jay.

We also share an enjoyment of food whether that be wings at a bar, monthly dinner club outings to nice restaurants, or Thanksgiving gatherings at one of our homes (featuring Jay’s parsnip soup served from a turkey-shaped tureen). Jay and I both love to bring people together around food.

Jay also invited friends of all ages to join him for vacations on Edisto Island, South Carolina. He had taken his family there for years, but when his daughters started having their own families and didn’t necessarily want to spend two weeks at the beach with dad, he and his wife invited friends to share the rental house. Here we found other similarities among this group of friends of various ages: We all appreciated a slow-paced vacation. In the morning over coffee we would plan the day’s meals and decide who would do the Piggly Wiggly and shrimp boat shopping runs. Then we’d spend the majority of our time reading (on the beach or the porch) before a group would partner in making a big dinner. After dinner we’d play board games or do more reading. We did a lot of reading. I miss those vacations.

I miss Jay.

I left Pittsburgh 12 years ago, so I don’t see Jay and other friends back there very often. I was in Pittsburgh for less than 24-hours a few months ago and managed to see a good number of friends in that short time, but Jay was not one of them. He had rehearsal for yet another show.

Although Jay’s birthday was a few week’s ago, there is a surprise party for him tonight. It reminds me of when we threw a surprise party for him years ago. That time it was for milestone number of years (I don’t remember exactly how many) that he had been teaching at Duquesne University. Many former students came for that. Former students/current friends. There was a huge snowstorm that day. Jay couldn’t understand why we were still insisting on a having a production meeting (which is what he thought he was going to) or why his wife was wearing such impractical shoes in a blizzard. He had no idea when he sat down in the theatre that there were about 100 people hiding behind the curtain. It was a pleasure to have been part of such a joyful surprise.

I hope today’s party is just as successful (ideally without the snowstorm). It would be nice to be there, but traveling this close to Christmas was too hectic. I’ll be there in spirit though, celebrating my friend Jay, no matter how much older he is.

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